JACKSON TWP. Summer is a time when high school athletes and teams work to get better, whether it’s individually or as a group in conditioning and organized team activities.
But as the summer winds along and the next school year approaches, The Suburbanite spoke to local coaches, officials and administrators and asked a simple question: If you could change one thing about high school sports to make it a better overall experience for athletes, what would you change?
TIME, TIME, TIME
One of the most common themes that ran through most responses, across sports and roles, was the idea of time. Sports have become a year-round endeavor for many young athletes and when they’re not practicing with or competing for their high school teams, playing during the summer - or winter, depending on the sport and its season - for travel teams or club teams is the norm.
Jackson varsity girls basketball coach Anthony Butch, who has led the Polar Bears to two regional finals in his five years at the helm, has seen the volume of games played take its toll on some young athletes.
"My improvement would be centered around out-of-season competition. I think there needs to be regulations on the number of games, matches or meets played, quality of competition, cost for admission and other things," Butch said. "It seems like every weekend there is a tournament somewhere. Players will typically play two or three times the number of games compared to their high school season in half the duration of days. I think this sacrifices skill improvement and for some kids it limits the development of passion for the sport."
Those on the other side of the equation often contend that playing on club or travel teams is a way players can elevate their profile and enhance their chances for a college athletic scholarship, but coaches such as Butch believe there is a balance between the benefits derived from it and the potential negative effects on an athlete who plays constantly year-round and devotes so much time and money to their sport.
Time was also part of the response from baseball coaches such as Jackson’s Bill Gamble, whose teams have captured two state titles during his tenure. Baseball (and softball) tend to find themselves in a time crunch every spring due to weather forcing the postponement of early-season games, leading to games stacking up at the end of the year.
"If we could change something - the OHSAA added one week in 2019 to extend the season - (and) push the tournament games back so we are not rushed to finish our regular season, or having to play league games and tourney games at the same time," Gamble said of ways to improve the situation.
Indeed, the closing weeks of baseball season tend to be a hectic mix of regular-season and tournament games, with teams sometimes playing a tournament game one day and a regular season game with an impact on their league title race the next day.
In the race to succeed in a given sport, athletes - and those around them - can put tremendous amounts of time, effort, money and energy into the process. If you ask some coaches and even athletes, that can get to be too much at times.
"I think high school athletes would have a better high school experience if they had less people in their ears. Many times kids are hearing very different messages from their coach or coaches, parents, personal trainers and peers," Jackson boys track coach Scott Stayer said. "The pressure to meet the expectations of everyone is nearly impossible for a 15 to 18 year old. The full-ride scholarship that parents plant in young athletes, I feel puts crazy pressure on kids. Setting an obtainable goal of just being able to participate at the next level would put less stress on kids."
Stayer noted that many athletes play multiple sports and with the year-round nature of most of them, they can have multiple coaches and teams demanding their time and attention at a given moment. He noted that hiring a trainer or personal coach can help a young athlete, there is a limit on how much that athlete can take in, remember and focus on without getting completely overwhelmed. Additionally, parents who pay large amounts of money for extra training and coaching for their child can express frustration with a high school coach if they feel like their child isn’t getting enough playing time - a concern that has existed since high school sports have been around, but which can be compounded if a family is investing thousands of dollars into the process.
Jackson senior girls soccer player Annie Winkhart expressed some of the same sentiments from an athlete’s point of view.
"Athletes and coaches from every sport always criticize the parents for putting too much pressure on their kids, which takes away the fun and passion to play the game," Winkhart said. "While each role holds great importance, the coaches should coach, the players should play and the parents should be the biggest support system and respect that the decisions being made are in the best interest of the team."
Winkhart noted that as much as possible, when it comes to what happens within a team, she thinks it’s important for coaches and athletes to communicate directly and not make parents or outside parties a main factor in the process. Parents knowing what’s happening with their child is important, but her thought is that every conversation about playing time or a player’s role within the team doesn’t need input from the outside.
LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
Competitive balance and fairness have long been a big issue within the Ohio High School Athletic Association. Ideas and proposals to split the state into public and private school divisions have been floated for years and seem to arise at the end of each sports season, especially if many of the state champions for a given sport are from private schools.
Football has seen the most change, with the OHSAA expanding to seven divisions for the sport and creating a much different-looking Division I, in which Jackson participates. Jackson High School athletic director Terry Peterson is among those who would like to see more done to address the issue of public versus private school competitive balance.
"Even though the OHSAA has worked diligently on trying to make a more even playing field amongst schools across the state over the last several years, there still has been nothing done to assist the Division I public schools versus Division I private schools," Peterson said while noting that the OHSAA’s new competitive balance formula can make for a complicated scenario for some schools. "Competitive Balance cannot bump an already Division I school into a division higher than where it already currently is (in) Division I. Competitive balance at least addresses the issue at divisions lower than Division I, but nothing for Division I itself."
Solving the dilemma is one that coaches, officials and administrators across the state continues to debate and Peterson conceded that he doesn’t see an obvious, clear answer at present.
"But I know when a school like ours, non-public and non-open-enrollment, plays a private or parochial school who can in essence, hand pick who they permit into their school - its not an even playing field and the public, non-open-enrollment schools are competing with a major disadvantage."
Which of the above ideas would make the biggest difference depends heavily on your perspective on high school sports and what matters most - be it athletes enjoying their experience in the moment, having the best chance to win a championship or the best chance to earn a college scholarship. At a minimum, perhaps they can start - or continue - the conversation about how to make sports better.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB